State will not punish Mercy for abortion policy

ACLU claims hospital violates law

DENVER – The state health department will not pursue a complaint against Mercy Regional Medical Center for its admonishment of a doctor who recommended a patient consider an abortion.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked for an investigation last November after hospital officials admonished Dr. Michael Demos, a cardiologist, after his conversation with a patient about abortion in 2012.

Mercy is a Catholic Health Initiatives hospital, and it takes direction from church teachings against abortion. The ACLU complained that Mercy officials violated state laws that allow doctors to exercise their professional judgment.

But the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment investigated the charge and decided not to sanction Mercy because Demos practices in a clinic attached to the hospital, not the hospital itself.

“The clinic where the event occurred is not licensed by the department and is not under its jurisdiction, therefore no deficient practice was cited,” said the letter, which was signed by Judy Hughes of the health department’s Health Facilities and Emergency Medical Services Division.

The letter was brief, just four sentences. It stated the health department had conducted an investigation under its authority to regulate hospitals.

“It’s kind of semantics, I think, or a good way of getting around dealing with the problem,” Demos said.

Demos’ clinic is in an office building attached to Mercy and owned by Centura Health, which also operates Mercy. The hospital is owned by Catholic Health Initiatives.

Randy Kuykendall, director of the state Health Facilities division, was not available to comment Thursday afternoon. A spokeswoman said no one else at the department could answer questions about the investigation Thursday.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said the state’s decision does not resolve the dispute about Mercy’s policy, which he believes violates state and federal law.

“Until Dr. Demos hears differently from the hospital, he remains in an unacceptable bind where he must choose between obeying the directive that was conveyed to him by the administrators last year and his medical and ethical obligations to his patients,” Silverstein said in an email.

However, Mercy spokesman David Bruzzese said Mercy does not prevent its doctors from discussing medical options with their patients.

“Patients and our employed physicians are free to use all information in the medical literature to make appropriate medical decisions,” Bruzzese said.

But it’s not consistent with Catholic ethical directives to recommend an abortion, he said.

In early 2012, Demos treated an unnamed pregnant woman with a family history of Marfan syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue. Women with severe cases of the syndrome can die during childbirth. For some Marfan patients, medical guidelines recommend terminating the pregnancy.

Demos’ patient turned out not to have the disorder. She gave birth successfully, and more than a year later, she complained to hospital administrators that it was improper that Demos recommended an abortion.

The ACLU complaint cited a letter from Dr. Kip Boyd, Mercy’s chief medical officer, to the patient, promising to “provide education to all our employed providers, reminding them that they should not recommend abortion – even to patients who may have serious illnesses.”

Demos said women with severe cases of Marfan have an 80 to 90 percent risk of death during childbirth.

“I have had a patient in this situation who had Marfan. She refused to terminate the pregnancy. She died,” Demos said.

Her baby lived, but didn’t have a mother.

“It’s very tragic,” he said.

As a Catholic hospital, Mercy follows the Ethical and Religious Directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules forbid even tangential association with the practice of abortion.

Demos said he has not had any problems with hospital administration since the dispute became public last year.

“It’s been very professional, very appropriate,” Demos said. “They’re nice people.”

People have stopped Demos on the street to express their support, he said. Despite Thursday’s outcome, he’s happy that the community has learned about the policies of its main health system.

“Wouldn’t you want your daughter’s health to be paramount in this situation?” Demos said. “They at least need to know their options.”

jhanel@durangoherald.com

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story